The beginning of history in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a visual novel attached to a real-time strategy game about, what else, teens in mechs. Here, the mechs are real robots called sentinels, and they feature in both modes of the game. There’s the mystery-box story of the VN section, called “Remembrance Mode,” where players navigate the many branching paths of the game’s titular 13 characters. (There are two more pilots that you don’t play as, because plot.) In the RTS “Destruction Mode,” the mechs are placed on a tactical map where they defend humanity against a kaiju invasion.
These two modes occupy separate sections of the game’s menu, complete with respective percentages tracking completion. But players are eventually forced to switch between the modes to progress. Often, when I was on the verge of a breakthrough in Remembrance Mode, my progress was halted. 13 Sentinels could’ve made these locks more flexible, could have authored a well-paced, linear experience out of the 13 stories and gameplay, but it doesn’t. To continue playing the VN, I was forced to blow up kaiju for an hour. Adamant in its premise, 13 Sentinels trades fun for a compounding ludonarrative metaphor.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.]
To talk about that metaphor and 13 Sentinels, we need to talk about its ending — and about humanity’s. Despite the traffic, stray cats, and throws of adolescence, Ashitaba is the stage for humanity’s post-apocalypse. The theater for this demise, a spaceship. In the last year on record, 2188, Project Ark is mankind’s only chance of survival. It’s unclear what beset the future world; megacorps and a black market-fueled nanomachine war are all we glimpse of the Earth’s past. The 15 pilots are perhaps millions of years in the future at the game’s end. When in particular doesn’t matter, though. There are no calendars in this star system.
Beating 13 Sentinels means leaving the literal game with its pilots and entering a starry void that we have only peeked at before. This isn’t outer space, though. The illusory walls, projections of reality, have collapsed. The home each of the 15 pilots once knew has faded. Okino, the nonbinary hacker of the group, explains: “The five sectors are not reality … That world is a simulated space. A massive, perfect illusion for us.” Ashitaba, which had appeared as a generic Japanese metro depicted across five distinct historical eras, is really five sectors of a spaceship, an ark, fleeing the Earth. All the movies, traffic, weather, and behaviors of its 2.1 million inhabitants were lines of code that purposefully created a simulated reality for the 15 pilots at the center of the game.
There is a reason this simulated world exists, but the pilots don’t learn why until after they’ve escaped it. The ark they didn’t know they were on has reached its destination, a hospitable planet terraformed by the very construction machines that had appeared in the simulation as kaiju. And the sentinel pilots who were made to stall the destruction of the city all turn out to be clones created from the genetic material of the last survivors of the ark.
In a prerecorded message, one of their progenitors, Tamao Kurabe, explains the purpose of the simulation to them: “What makes us human is the succession and evolution of our culture and knowledge. These you will inherit and cultivate.” This simulation was meant to be a period of enculturation for them. Ashitaba’s sectors included 1945 during the Pacific War, from which two pilots emerged as conscripts in the imperial army. Another sector revolved around 1985 during the country’s economic boom, its pilots absorbed in sci-fi movies on VHS tapes. One girl from 2025 liked to stream her music. And others came from what was the fiction’s past: 2065 and 2105.
The 1985 version of Ashitaba is filled with familiar ’80s iconography from our own world. There are homages to everything from post-war kaiju fiction to western UFO invasions to an entire subplot that’s basically just ET. ’80s fiction runs as deep as Ashitaba’s source code, itself borrowed from a (fictional) game based off the (also fictional) generic kaiju TV series, Mighty Kaiju Deimos. 13 Sentinels uses its iconography to mix memory with fiction. Characters watch their past selves fight in future apocalypses, none the wiser. One character even refers to the oncoming invasion as a game — the very one we play in the separate Destruction Mode.
The nostalgia the designers of the ark must have felt similarly affects players of 13 Sentinels who, in both Japan and America, cannot separate these pieces of media from the accompanied rise of consumerism. But while the game delights in its ’80s homage and intertextuality, the iconography within the simulated city is much more like the remixed and recycled images of the ’80s we see in fictional media today. Conventional, commodified, inevitable. The game presents these as virtual reality to draw attention to the ways in which our current media landscape constructs our lived reality.
By reconstructing these seemingly mundane realities in space, the world of 13 Sentinels posits that every bit of our lived experience is, in fact, intentionally created. An AI supercomputer known as “Universal Control” constructs and maintains the simulation for the pilots who are unaware of it. It’s a virtual reality that is much like the one that Marxist cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism.”
Fisher did not invent the term, which originated in Germany to critique commoditization in the 1960s. He repurposed it in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, describing capitalist realism as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” His argument can be understood as a response to the controversial claim by political economist Francis Fukuyama that, with the fall of the Berlin wall, history had ended: “that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” With the symbolic collapse of communism, Fukuyama believed that humanity had decided that social democracy was the final evolution of politics and ideology. Of course, attached to this reality was its economic system: capitalism. Without any imaginable alternative, it appeared humanity might just spend the remainder of civilization optimizing our permutations of this status quo.
A lot of leftists didn’t like hearing that, but Fisher’s book is more of an acknowledgement that, in our cultural unconscious, Fukuyama was dishearteningly correct. “For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism,” Fisher writes, “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” It is in these horizons that I find 13 Sentinels. At first adopting the conventions of sci-fi, mecha, and the ’80s nostalgia trip, the game manages to subvert the ordained by interrogating the ways in which these reenactments reaffirm a particular reality.
Universal Control’s parallels to capitalist realism become central to 13 Sentinels’ mystery-box story. Perhaps the most cogent example is the game’s depiction of memory disorder. Most of the characters experience haunting dreams of their pasts in future sectors. Although the game is divided into 13 separate paths, it’s astonishingly coherent, with the exception of Ryoko Shinonome’s story, whose branch is the hardest to grasp because of her psychological afflictions that cause memory loss. Shinonome is presented in bandages, a grey color palette matching her gloomy demeanor. When playing as the girl, we see she often forgets when she is and what side she’s fighting for. Doubt and mistrust overcome her as we find out that her nanomachines, the augmentations attached to all the pilot’s brains, have become infected. In a discomforting reenactment of psychiatric treatment, the player must take nondescript pills prescribed by the “school nurse” every few minutes to reduce the visual impairment of Shinonome’s painful head shocks on the screen.
At the end of her story, Shinonome and the player discover that the closest thing to a cure for her memory loss is a neurological backup made before she last piloted a sentinel, a save that only recovers her memories pertaining to piloting. All she knows now is how to fight. “In conditions where realities and identities are upgraded like software,” Fisher writes, “it is not surprising that memory disorders should have become the focus of cultural anxiety.” This upgrading of reality and identity is quite literal in 13 Sentinels, as the game creates a less apparent homage to another refigured ’80s action star — Jason Bourne. In his analysis of the media trend of memory loss, Fisher cited Bourne, comparing the original 1980s novels to the later film adaptations: “The complex plotting of Ludlum’s novels is transformed into a series of evanescent event-ciphers and action set pieces which barely cohere into an intelligible narrative.”
Fisher’s critique is strikingly reminiscent of the ludic premise of this phantasmagoric game: 13 intertwined paths across two distinct modes. Shinonome’s characterization further echoes Fisher’s description, that “bereft of personal history, Bourne lacks narrative memory, but retains what we might call formal memory: a memory — of techniques, practices, actions — that is literally embodied in a series of physical reflexes and tics.” Nonlinearity, a plurality of perspectives, and the jarring shift in modes begin to mirror the plastic temporality of capitalist realism’s precarious condition: “Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems.”
Other characters also experience memory disorders. Ei Sekigahara is in the early stages of Shinonome’s affliction, while Juro Kurabe’s identity is molded by the memories the nurse and Prisoner 426 imbue him with. Almost all the pilots are haunted by weird dreams of kaiju apocalypse, memories of past failures. The manufactured dreams of Ashitaba are directly related to the maintenance of its simulated reality. In Capitalist Realism’s analysis of memory disorders in pop culture, Fisher wrote, “if memory disorder provides a compelling analogy for the glitches in capitalist realism, the model for its smooth functioning would be dreamwork. When we are dreaming, we forget, but immediately forget that we have done so; since the gaps and lacunae in our memories are Photoshopped out, they do not trouble or torment us.” The characters’ dreams maintain Universal Control’s illusion that Ashitaba in 1985 is a coherent, naturally occurring society.
This positions the sentinels as a resistance to the reflexive impotence that capitalist realism inspires. It’s evidently easier to imagine fighting a 100-foot-tall mechanized kaiju in an enormous metal body than it is to imagine a world beyond capitalism, but, like dreams so real, “The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” It is in what we make of our endings, our apocalypses, and all our fictions that the dystopias of our lives could be rewritten and not just re-enacted.
As 13 Sentinels comes to a close, the only images that fill the starry void are the pilots’ nude profiles in cramped cockpits. They realize these are the life support pods they’ve grown in for the past 18 years, and that each fateful encounter with the sentinels was a look behind the diaphanous curtain. Okino continues: “These cockpits we’re in right now? That is reality.” The generation that had come after history reclaims possibility, creativity, potentiality. In a genre that is itself caught between the inescapable fatalism of Gundam and the abject nihilism of Evangelion, 13 Sentinels is remarkably hopeful in its thesis. This is the beginning of history, a better ending, the post-post apocalypse. Now more than ever, we need another timeline.
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